Academic journal article Africa

A New Name for an Old Practice: Vigilantes in South-Western Nigeria

Academic journal article Africa

A New Name for an Old Practice: Vigilantes in South-Western Nigeria

Article excerpt


It is often considered probable that the recent rise of vigilante groups in Nigeria means an erosion of the state monopoly of legitimate violence as well as a marked decline in state sovereignty over the national territory. However, this conclusion does not take into consideration the fact that in Nigeria 'vigilante' is a term initially proposed by the police in the mid-1980s as a substitute for an older practice known in the western part of the country since the colonial period as the 'hunter guard' or 'night guard' system. Hence, instead of looking at vigilante groups as a response to a supposed increase in crime or a supposed decline of the police force, we should consider them--initially at least--as a first attempt to introduce forms of community policing in order to improve the appalling image of the police. As such, in south-western Nigeria 'vigilante' is a new name for an old practice of policing that should be considered in an extended timeframe (from the 1930s onward), a period in which violent crime has been perceived as a potential danger. Finally, within the ongoing debate on the 'privatization of the state' in Africa, non-state policing in Nigeria testifies to a continuum existing since the colonial period rather than to the appearance of new phenomena in the 1980s or the 1990s.


On considere souvent qu'il est probable que l'essor recent des groupes de vigilantes au Nigeria signifie une erosion du monopole de l'Etat sur la violence legitime, ainsi qu'un declin marque de la souverainete de l'Etat sur le territoire national. Or, cette conclusion ne prend pas en consideration le fait qu'au Nigeria le terme << vigilante >> a ete initialement propose par la police dans le milieu des annees 1980 en remplacement d'une pratique plus ancienne connue dans la partie occidentale du pays depuis la periode coloniale sous le nom de systeme << hunter guard >> ou << night guard >>. Ainsi, plutot que de considerer les groupes de vigilantes comme une reponse a une augmentation supposee de la criminalite ou a un declin suppose des forces de police, nous devrions les considerer (du moins initialement) comme une premiere tentative d'introduire des formes de maintien de l'ordre communautaire afin d'ameliorer l'image epouvantable de la police. En tant que tel, << vigilante >> est, dans le Sud-Est du Nigeria, le nom nouveau donne a une ancienne pratique de maintien de l'ordre qu'il convient de considerer dans une periode etendue (a partir des annees 1930) au cours de laquelle la criminalite violente etait percue comme un danger potentiel. Enfn, dans le cadre du debat actuel sur la << privatisation de l'Etat >> en Afrique, le maintien de l'ordre non-etatique au Nigeria temoigne d'une continuite depuis la periode coloniale, plutot que de l'apparition d'un phenomene nouveau dans les annees 1980 ou 1990.


'We keep learning strange names such as vigilante for something traditional but vigilante has been long here. I told you, I did it when I was young.' (Alhaji Alimi Buraimo Bello, aged 85, Ibadan, January 2003)

Since the 1980s, the phenomenon of vigilantes and vigilantism has been much studied through topics such as the rise of crime and insecurity, the involvement of local groups in political conflicts, and, extending the framework wider still, the possible decline of state law enforcement agencies. Despite the fact that vigilantes and vigilantism have acquired a renewed interest especially in the African literature, Michael L. Fleisher (2000: 209) points out that there is as yet no scholarly consensus on what exactly vigilantism is, especially as regards the nature of its relationship with the state. The word has been used to describe movements that differ in nature and composition as well as geographical location. Africa is no exception: we need only mention movements such as white farmers in the Orange Free State in South Africa in the 1910s and 1920s (Murray 1989), anti-thief and anti-witch organizations in Bugisu District in Uganda in the 1960s (Heald 1986), movements to counter cattle raiding in Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s (Abrahams 1987), state-sponsored groups fighting ANC members in South Africa in the 1980s (Haysom 1986), or political militias with an ethnocentric and strong religious agenda such as the Mungiki in Nairobi (Anderson 2002; Maupeu 2002) or the O'odua People's Congress (OPC) in south-western Nigerian cities today (Akinyele 2001, 2007; Adebanwi 2005; Guichaoua 2007). …

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